1. Monitoring for signs of disease:
Once our pet is considered senior, ideal veterinary care will change from the visits we had when our dogs were young. It is recommended that older dogs have a veterinary visit semi-annually, or possibly more frequently if they have any health conditions. The exam may be more in depth, and appropriate testing may include bloodwork or x-rays as a tool to screen for disease or if your pet is having any abnormal signs. These tests and a physical exam by your veterinarian check for signs of diseases that are more common in our older dogs.
- Heart disease
- Arthritis or other diseases of the bones and joints
- Kidney failure
- Dental disease
- Endocrine (hormone diseases) such as Diabetes, Cushing’s Disease and hypothyroidism
- Liver disease
- Mental health changes
- Decreased appetite, weight or muscle loss
- Weight gain
- Coughing, difficulty breathing and inability to exercise may be due to heart or respiratory disease
- Vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation
- Change in smell of breath
- Increased thirst and urination can be seen with kidney, bladder and liver diseases, some cancers and endocrine conditions
- Limping, difficulty sitting, standing or walking
Many senior pets will sadly suffer from cancer and although there is not one specific sign to monitor for, there are some signs of cancer in dogs.
- Visible lumps or bumps
- Swelling in the abdomen
- Drastic drop in weight
- Trouble breathing
- Bleeding from body openings, such as mouth or nose
2. Changes in behavior:
Monitoring pets for behavioral changes is critical because as we see these changes, abnormal medical signs may start to occur. Changes in behavior are a good indicator that your pet may have a disease.
- Increase in anxiety
- Accidents in the house
- Confusion and disorientation
- Increase in barking, howling, or growling
- Less interaction with owners or other pets
- Change in sleep pattern
- Wandering, circling, getting stuck in corners
- Reaction to sounds the dog was previously accustomed to
- Loss of memory or training from early life
Many senior dogs will suffer from Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, which is similar to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in people. Although there is no specific treatment to reverse the changes that occur in the brain during this process, there are some things that can be done to decrease the severity of the symptoms such as increasing exercise and mental stimulation. Attempting to teach your dog new tricks may also be helpful. Your veterinarian may recommend medicine and supplements, such as omega fatty acids that can help slow down the progression of the disease.
3. Identification and Management of Pain:
One of the biggest fears owners have for themselves, loved ones and their pets is to ensure they are not in pain. Pain can be expressed in each dog differently and many dogs are very tough and will not show signs of pain.
- Inability to rest or sleep
- Decreased appetite
- Changes in demeanor
A variety of diseases and conditions can cause pain, and there are many options for pain relief that can be discussed with your veterinarian. One or multiple prescription medications may be prescribed. The use of supplements such as omega fatty acids and glucosamine can provide pain relief. Other options include acupuncture, massage and physical therapy.
The use of supplements, particularly those containing glucosamine, chondroitin and omega fatty acids will benefit senior pets. Both can help significantly with arthritis, which is very common in older dogs. They have very rare side effects, mostly tummy upset that improves after a few doses and these supplements have been proven to be safe and effective. Many older pets will have changes in their activity level and avoid playing, jumping, running and other activities they previously enjoyed. The use of these supplements both as a preventative and treatment can help your pet have a healthy activity level.
5. Household changes:
Some simple household changes may also be beneficial to older pets. Especially due to arthritis or neurologic conditions, your dog can have a tough time around the house and a few changes may be very helpful.
- Providing your senior dog with extra soft bedding, such as an orthopedic dog bed will increase comfort level
- Using raised food and water bowls makes eating and drinking easier to not have to strain the neck or back
- Some pets may need stairs or ramps to get in and out of the car or on furniture
- Your pet may have more difficulty on uncarpeted floors, such as hardwood or marble. Placing extra carpeting or a mat in areas your dog may slip, such as near food bowls, can be helpful
- If your pet has a hard time getting up and down the stairs, you may want to place a gate so they do not injure themselves
- Use extra caution when bathing and use a mat so they do not slip
Weight changes can have a significant effect on a dog of any age, but particularly senior dogs. Keeping your dog at an ideal weight will provide your pet with a good quality of life. It is not important to focus on the number of pounds, but how your pet looks and feels. When you pet your dog on the side of the chest, you should be able to feel the bony ribs, but should not be able to see them from across the room. When you look at your dog from above, they should have a tiny inward tuck of their waist. If your dog does not have this appearance, your dog is considered overweight or obese.
Weighing your pet at home or by bringing large dogs to a veterinary hospital is the best way to monitor weight. When we see our dogs daily, it is difficult to judge ourselves.
Nutrition is key to helping your senior dog maintain a healthy weight. As your dog ages, so does their ability to taste and smell food, which can affect their appetite. Many dogs will become picky eaters, and a diet change may be helpful. Many dogs prefer canned food or moisture added to dry food as they age, as chewing may be more difficult for them. If your pet is healthy and at an ideal weight an adult maintenance or a senior diet is suitable and should contain the following:
- Protein 15-25%
- Fats: 7-15%
- Fiber: 2-10%
- Obese dogs and those with a sensitive stomach should have a diet that is more on the high end of the fiber content
- Fat: 7-15%
- Heart disease: these diets should be low in sodium, and have specific amounts of fatty acids, antioxidants and taurine
- Kidney disease: lower protein diets that have controlled amounts of phosphorous and sodium are recommended
- Cancer: these diets should be higher in fat, protein, omega fatty acids and lower in carbohydrates
A proper diet should be developed by working with your veterinarian to choose appropriate foods for your senior dog. If a home cooked diet is being used, you veterinarian can make sure your dog is getting adequate essential nutrients to maintain good health.
- Bartges, Joe. “Feeding Geriatric Patients: What is the Best Nutritional Approach?”. American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Conference. Veterinary Information Network, 2014.
- Bauer JE. Responses of dogs to dietary omega-3 fatty acids. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2007;231:1657–1661
- Burns, Kara. “Cognitive Dysfunction/Brain Aging: What’s New in Nutritional Management?”. American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Conference. Veterinary Information Network, 2018.
- Cline, Jill. “Nutrition, Geriatrics, and Behavior”. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine. vol 26, issue 1, Feb 2011.
- Epstein, Mark, et al. “AAHA Senior Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats”. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. 2005; 41, 81-91.
- Ettinger, Stephen J., and Edward C. Feldman. Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine: Diseases of the Dog and the Cat. Elsevier Saunders, 2010.
- Freeman, Lisa. Cachexia and sarcopenia: emerging syndromes of importance in dogs and cats. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 2012;26(1):3–17
- Freeman, Lisa. “Optimal Nutrition for Senior Pets” World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Conference Proceedings. Veterinary Information Network, 2013.
- “Guidelines for a Lifetime of Health Care and Nutrition, Helpful Measurements”. Iams Company Proceedings. Veterinary Information Network. 2003.
- Laflamme DP. Nutritional care for aging cats and dogs. Veterinary Clinics of North America” Small Animal Practice.. 2012;42:769–791, vii
- Ograin, Vicky. “The Golden Years – Dogs and Cats Aging Gracefully”. Fortieth Annual Ontario Association of Veterinary Technician Conference. Veterinary Information Network, 2019.
- Parry, Nicola. “AVMA 2017: Behavioral Problems in Senior Dogs.” American Veterinarian, American Veterinary Medical Association, 2017
- “Senior Pet Care (FAQ).” American Veterinary Medical Association, www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Caring-for-an-Older-Pet-FAQs.aspx.
- Vandeweerd JM, Coisnon C, Clegg P, et al. Systematic review of efficacy of nutraceuticals to alleviate clinical signs of osteoarthritis. J Vet Intern Med 2012; 26: 448–456.
- Ward, Ernie. “Pet Weight Check.” Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 2017, petobesityprevention.org/pet-weight-check/